Sunday, August 4, 2013

Parents Have High Hopes for Oakland's Troubled Special Education Program

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group
This article was first published on July 7, 2013
OAKLAND -- By Cintya Molina's count , the teacher responsible for educating her autistic third-grade son last year was absent from class at least 38 times. 

When the Oakland school district teacher was there, Molina said, she had no way of gauging how her 9-year-old was doing because there was no discernible curriculum and no way of assessing his educational progress. 

"It was just like, whatever happens," said Molina, who is head of the school district's community advisory committee for special education. 

This year her son will be shuffled to his fourth school in what seems to her like an endless trek through a constantly changing, disorganized and leaderless system. 

And she is not alone. 

A new consultant's report on the Oakland school district's special education department, which has a $78 million budget and 5,400 students, lays out 40 pages of problems that show it can't even carry out basic logistical tasks like telling parents what school their child will be attending on the first day of class. 

Now more change is on the horizon, and parents are hoping this time it is good. 

Sheilagh Andujar, 61, who was principal of Oakland Technical High School for the last 10 years, took over as associate superintendent of the Programs for Exceptional Children last Monday. 

Andujar, who will earn $140,000 a year, is the fifth director of the troubled program in seven years. 

She is currently moving into her office and reading the report that found top to bottom mismanagement of a system that paid out $3 million in legal settlements in the last three years alone. 

"I wouldn't have taken the job if I wasn't up for it," Andujar said. "I don't know why there's been such turnover, but I do know that any organization can't get traction when there's constant change in leadership. I hope to visit many schools and know the programs and the teachers and be tenacious and just stick with it." 

Andujar said her ideal vision for the department is to build a "group of like-minded people working together that includes families big time." 

"From what I've heard, the community has felt marginalized, so that's going to take some work, lots of listening and understanding and compassion so we are not adversaries," Andujar said. 

Andujar said her biggest priorities are to fill an unknown number of teacher and support staff positions; produce a list of school assignments for students and ¿provide transportation; make sure there are enough classrooms available for students on the first day of class; and remake an entire bureaucracy that the report found was lacking in "communication and responsiveness" between the central office and teachers in the schools. 

Following that will be more details like training staff to handle the growing number of autistic students who now make up 10 percent of the special education population; buying software for teachers or administrators to track students' progress to comply with state mandates on special education, and increasing the $25 per classroom allotment for supplies. 

"This is a very disturbing report," said school board member Jody London during a school board meeting last month. "This is not great news. None of us have acknowledged that." 

At the same meeting Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Maria Santos acknowledged that the mismanagement of the program has failed the community. 

"We have students who need support with behavioral management, and we need staff who actually have expertise to work with them," Santos said. "Another key area is around reading. We have many students who are reading four years below grade level. We need the tools to ascertain where our kids are and what they need." 

Molina, who is hoping her son can get a better education in the fall, showed the stress of her special education journey in Oakland schools when she addressed the school board June 26. 

"I am a parent of a child who is in a system that has fallen apart in every setting," she said. "There are teachers with no training, there is no physical education, no enrichment, nothing to mark what my child's literacy is. And this is absolutely a different experience than the other kids get." 

Doug Oakley covers Berkeley and the Oakland school district. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him on Twitter @douglasoakley.

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